Can Chokwe Lumumba, Jackson, MS’s New Mayor, Bring Change to the State?

Chokwe Lumumba: 'We are against the Mississippi state flag. We are against oppression and all of those monuments, relics and images that promote it or memorialize it' (Photograph: Julie Dermansky)
Chokwe Lumumba: ‘We are against the Mississippi state flag. We are against oppression and all of those monuments, relics and images that promote it or memorialize it’ (Photograph: Julie Dermansky)

34-year-old attorney Chokwe Lumumba sees his election win as proof that even in a red state in the age of Trump, many people are ready to be progressive

The day Chokwe Lumumba’s father died in 2014, he asked for a moment to be alone in the room with the man he’d long considered his best friend. He told his dad, Chokwe Sr, then the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, all the last things he had to tell him. He prayed and asked god to put his father’s spirit into him. Then, he said, his next move became immediately apparent.

“I decided at that moment, though I shared it with nobody, that I was going to run for mayor,” Lumumba said. “There were a lot of people who were hopeful under his administration, and there was a lot of fear surrounding his loss, so I wanted to restore hope for people.”

The 34-year-old attorney who had “never run for junior class president, let alone mayor” now holds the keys to the state’s most populous city. He brings with him a progressive agenda and much of the leftover to-do list of his father’s administration. He sees his victory – collecting 93% of the vote in Jackson’s 6 June election – as proof that even in a deep red Republican state, and even in the age of Trump, the city’s residents are ready to move in a new progressive direction.

“The citizens of Jackson have demonstrated overwhelmingly a readiness to be a progressive city and not only to correct the ills as we see them, but to be a model for the nation of what progressive leadership and collective genius can accomplish.”

I describe myself as a revolutionary’

It’s hard not to conjure allusions to young Obama when Lumumba walks in the room. Perhaps it’s the African-sounding name, the slightness of build or the warm smile and effortless personability. Lumumba has a beard wisped with salt and pepper streaks, and a better fitting suit than Obama did circa 2004, but otherwise the nostalgia connects.

Like Obama, Lumumba spent much of his formative years around radical voices of black liberation, engrossed in community work and navigating a budding career as a gifted young black law professional before moving into the world of electoral politics.

Unlike Obama, Lumumba hasn’t found voice in the post-partisan and post-racial vernacular that propelled Obama to the presidency and onwards to international respect and appeal. Lumumba is still quite unapologetic both in his political and racial language and aspirations.

In explaining how he seeks to engage with his city’s police department, Lumumba quotes Malcolm X. Phrases like “self-determination,” a favorite of 1960s black power activists, enjoy a privileged place in his lexicon. Asked if he considers himself a “liberal”, Lumumba retorts, “I describe myself as a revolutionary.”

On the Mississippi state flag – one which still incorporates the confederate battle flag into its design and flies all over his city – Lumumba doesn’t equivocate. “We are against the Mississippi state flag. We are against oppression and all of those monuments, relics and images that promote it or memorialize it,” Lumumba said. “So long as we are shy about speaking up against that then we’re not prepared to be the best of the new South. We’re still a part of the noose South.”